I loved this scintillating and sleuthily researched account of the curious life and career of Maud West, one of Britain's first and best-known female detectives who ran her own detective agency from London's New Oxford Street for more than 30 years from 1905. Her exploits hit the headlines, but in that class-obsessed, male-dominated world, West hid aspects of her own identity. Consequently as Stapleton—a former bookseller at Wenlock Books—discovers, she was a most unreliable witness to her own life.
This is a book that gets better as it goes on, the more the reader knows about West. I kept thinking as I read that she would fare better on the screen than the page and impressively, the television rights have already been sold to ITV Studios and Tall Story Pictures — a testament to how compelling a character West is. There is just a little too much of the author in this biography and not quite enough of its fascinating subject.
Susannah Stapleton’s erudite but hugely entertaining debut is a true-life detective story about the quest for a true-life detective. A longstanding fan of Golden Age crime fiction, Stapleton is reading a 1930s Gladys Mitchell novel featuring the sleuth Mrs Bradley when she has a sudden thought: were there any non-fictional female sleuths around at the time? Reaching for her laptop, she soon finds a reference to Maud West, who billed herself as ‘London’s only lady detective’. And with that, writes Stapleton, in by no means the book’s only use of classic detective-story phrases, ‘The game was afoot’.
Stapleton is a frank and funny writer, her only fault being a slight tendency to pad. She is skilful in mingling two strands of social history: the daily working life of a self-employed lady detective in the early 20th century chronicling the crimes she solved; and the true life story of a complex woman who, as Stapleton puts it,“took the poor hand dealt to her at birth and transformed it into a life that would be the envy of millions”.